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History - Causes

Self-Help in Social Welfare

In 1954, the Seventh International Conference of Social Work convened in Toronto, Canada, with the theme of “Self-Help in Social Welfare.” While self-help is an important component of effective social work, it can also be seen as a challenge to the formal social work profession. The multi-day event in Toronto presented many speakers and panels in an effort to examine self-help organizations from many different perspectives, and resulted in a 342-page book known as the Proceedings of the event. In this historical Voices, we select key points made by authorities from various countries at this conference, key points that have stood the test of time.


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Volunteers, the March of Dimes, and the Fight Against Polio

The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (later known as the March of Dimes) was founded by Franklin Roosevelt in 1938 and immediately engaged thousands of volunteers in a two-decade struggle against the dreaded disease of polio. And it was successful, ultimately having to face the question: What happens to the energy and devotion of volunteers when their job has been accomplished?

In his 1957 book, The Volunteers, Columbia University researcher David L. Sills examined the phenomenon of the March of Dimes, particularly its devoted corps of volunteers, and raised issues still pertinent today.

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Big Brothers Big Sisters: 100+ Years of Volunteering

In 1904, a young New York City court clerk named Ernest Coulter was seeing more and more boys come through his courtroom. He recognized that caring adults could help many of these kids stay out of trouble, and he set out to find volunteers.

From this beginning (as described on the Big Brothers Big Sisters Web site), the concept of the volunteer “Big Brother” emerged. By 1916, Big Brothers had spread to 96 cities across the country and a parallel organization for girls, Big Sisters, had started, too.  Merged in 1977, Big Brothers Big Sisters currently operates in all 50 states and in 35 countries around the world.  This is the history of this effort to bring “caring mentors into the lives of children.”

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Crafting for Charity - A Global Movement

Thousands of volunteers from around the world donate their time and considerable talents to knit, crochet and quilt handmade items, often blankets, for those in need.  On many levels this simple act of compassion weaves a common theme – that comfort heals. 

The history of blanket making has roots in every culture.  Early settlers took their rug making skills and began trade.  It wasn’t long before trade developed charity components; new materials created softer, lighter blankets which were often given as gifts to rich and poor.  The term “blanketeer” dates back to the 1800’s and political unrest.

Learn the story of “crafting for charity” and how it has become an international movement.  Hillary Roberts, President of Project Linus NJ, Inc., shares the work of her organization and discusses the roots of hundreds of similar projects involving volunteer crafters.

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Volunteers in Childbirth, Past and Present

For centuries, women relied on one another to assist in the labor and birthing process – as they still do in many countries of the world. As medicine advanced, midwives became more formally educated, but eventually doctors dominated childbirth care. First both female friends and families were pushed from the delivery room, but then invited back in. In all these stages in the evolution of childbirth, volunteers played an important role, closely connected in the last century to asserting women’s rights. This article will highlight some of the ways volunteers made a difference to the start of life, including some history of groups such as the International Childbirth Education Association and the La Leche League.

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On the Inside: The Tradition of Volunteers in Prisons

Volunteers from the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Misery of Public Prisons began visiting incarcerated people in 1787. Over the next 117 years, the organization continued its efforts to improve prison conditions and the treatment of prisoners. Today the same organization continues its work as the Pennsylvania Prison Society.

In 1895, Warden J.W. French, the first Warden at the United States Penitentiary at Leavenworth, realized that Federal prisoners needed an incentive to foster positive behavior. He and Chaplain F.J. Leavitt pioneered the idea of inviting people from the community to assist their institution, especially in providing literacy courses and religious services.

While much of society turns its back on convicted offenders, volunteering in prisons has always been a calling for others, both in the US and elsewhere. This article looks at how community activists, religious evangelicals, and compassionate idealists made – and still make – an impact on prison life.

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Volunteers and the Evolution of Nursing

Nursing has been an integral part of patient care forever, but it was not always considered a medical profession in its own right. For centuries nursing was done privately by family members or publicly by religious orders. Prejudice and concerns for "moral decency" barred women from caring from the sick in hospitals until several wars in the 19th and early 20th centuries created the environment for change. Nursing historians have long credited the most visible pioneers of their profession, whose names are well-known: Florence Nightingale, Edith Clavell, Dorothea Dix, Clara Barton.

This article uncovers more about the evolution of nursing and how volunteers played an important, if rarely credited, role - women from many countries serving as nurses without pay or even paying their own way to the battlefront to do war nursing. Even the American poet Walt Whitman volunteered as a nurse during the Civil War, influencing his famous collection of poems, Leaves of Grass .

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